The Fairy Wrasses: Cirrhilabrus spp.


Cirrhilabrus species, commonly known as fairy wrasses throughout the hobby, these popular fish are some of the gaudiest colored marine fish. In addition to the extraordinary coloration of these fish, their personality is generally outgoing. These two elements, combined with their relatively small size, create highly sought after fish. In some instances, these fish have been referred to as the "holy grail" of marine ornamentals. But is this fish right for every aquarium? In the first column of "Fish Tales" for 2003, I'm going to explore Cirrhilabrus wrasses in depth, and hopefully help you decide if these fish are right for you, and if so, which one to choose.

Front view of a male Cirrhilabrus scottorum. Photo courtesy of Greg Rothschild.

Meet the Family

Cirrhilabrus is one of 60 genera within the Family Labridae, one of the largest reef fish families which comprises over 500 species and is second only to Gobiidae in total number of species. All wrasses, with the exception of Conniella apterygial, swim with their pectoral fins (Michael, 1998).

The genus Cirrhilabrus was originally erected by Temminck in 1850 with the description of Cirrhilabrus temmincki. In 1853 Bleeker described Cirrhilabrus solorensis. In 1957 Norman revised Cirrhilabrus and it contained two species, C. cyanopleura and C. temminckii. He regarded Cirrhilabrus solorensis as a synonym of C. cyanopleura and corrected the spelling of C. temmincki to C. temminkii. However, he neglected to include Cirrhilabrus jordani. Through the years numerous additional species have been identified as our knowledge of the genus has steadily grown. The 1980's proved to be the most exciting decade for the fans of these fish as 14 new species were described throughout that decade. Cirrhilabrus solorensis has been a confusing species to ichthyologists and currently is a member of the recognized 40 described species (Randall, pers. comm.) (see chart). Although it was the second Cirrhilabrus described, most researchers have regarded this species as a synonym to Cirrhilabrus solorensis.

A pair of Cirrhilabrus jordani rest after a stressful journey to the local fish store. The male is on the right and the female on the left. Photo courtesy of Greg Rothschild.

All species of Cirrhilabrus are characterized by having three pairs of prominent canine teeth on the upper-front jaw and one pair of projecting canine teeth on the lower-front jaw. Small conical teeth wrap the sides of the jaw leading back to large and recurved teeth in the rear three pairs (Springer & Randall, 1974). These teeth aid the fish in capturing, grasping, and pulverizing its primary food source - zooplankton.

The fairy wrasses share a unique eye with four closely related genera: Paracheilinus, Psuedocheilinus, Pseudocheilinops, and Pteragagus. The eye's cornea is divided into two segments, essentially forming a double pupil. It is believed that the center pupil is a close-up lens of sorts, enabling the fish to have a magnified view of their small prey (Baensch, 1994).

A nice close-up of the "double pupil" found in Cirrhilabrus sp. This particular fish is a male Cirrhilabrus scottorum. Photo courtesy of Greg Rothschild.

All Cirrhilabrus also have an interrupted lateral line and soft rays numbering 9 dorsal, 9 anal, 15 pectoral, 5 pelvic, 11 caudal rays, and 5 branchiostegal rays. Fin spines number 11 dorsal, 3 anal, and one pelvic (Springer & Randall, 1974). A fleshy cirrus is tipped on each of the dorsal and anal spines (Randall & Shen, 1978). Lastly, all Cirrhilabrus spp. are sexually dimorphic and dichromatic.

Labridae
° Cirrhilabrus
adnoratus
aurantidorsalis
balteatus
bathyphilus
blatteus
claire
condei
cyanopleura
earlei
exquisitus
filamentosus
flavianalis
flavidorsalis
johnsoni
jordani
katherinae
katoi
laboutei
lanceolatus
lineatus
lubbocki
lunatus
luteovittatus
melanomarginatus
piscilineatus
punctatus
pylei
rhomboidalis
roseafascia
rubrimarginatus
rubripinnis
rubrisquamis
rubriventralis
sanguineus
scottorum
sanguineus
solorensis
temminckii
tonozukai
walindi
walshi

In the Wild

Fairy wrasses are found throughout tropical Indo-Pacific shallow waters swimming two to eight feet above sand or rocky substrata. Most fairy wrasses can be found in depths ranging from 10 - 75 feet, although some can be found deeper than 150 feet. These fish are easily frightened and hide within nearby coral or rockwork until the threat has left the area. They are diurnally active and sleep at night pinned within rockwork, protected by a mucus cocoon which they secrete around themselves. A similar cocoon in Parrotfish was demonstrated to protect the sleeping fish by masking its scent from the sensitive olfactory nerves of nocturnal predators. It is presumed that the cocoon performs the same function for Cirrhilabrus.

Generally, these fishes form aggregations of one dominant male and several (or more) females, and they spend the better part of their day feeding on zooplankton. The males are always larger and more colorful than the females and will flash or display more vibrant colors during courtship. In all Cirrhilabrus species the male is a different color than the female. This two phase coloration is called "dichromatic." In some cases coloration varies within the species from location to location. This is most pronounced in Cirrhilabrus temminckii, with up to three color variations (Randall, 1992). In time these may prove to be separate species, but they are currently regarded as simple color variations.

No small males have been found; thus, it is presumed that all male Cirrhilabrus spp. are "secondary males," that is, a male resulting from a female that has undergone a sex change, also known as a "protogynous hermaphrodite" (Randall & Kuiter, 1989). The largest and most dominant females will change into a male when the social order dictates the need for a male. Some events that may trigger this conversion include, but are not limited to, death or capture of the previous male.

Spawning can take place in several ways. The primary mating ritual begins with the dominant male of the territory swimming through his harem of females. As he swims through the harem, he will begin to "flash" his colors. Generally, these colors are metallic-like, usually in shades of light blue, violet, or purple. The male will then select a gravid female and make a charge at her. Presumably, this signifies to the female that she has been selected. The male will first take part in a single loop by himself, and then is followed through the second loop with the selected female. At the highest point of their ascent they release the gametes. The non-territorial dominant males may perform another type of spawning. Referred to as "streak spawning," these males will dash into the mating ritual of another pair just as the pair release their gametes. This second male will also release his sperm at this time.

In the Home Aquarium

Fairy wrasses can do extremely well in home aquaria, provided a few requirements are met. First and foremost, the aquarium canopy must be completely enclosed. Fairy wrasses are accomplished jumpers in a home aquarium, and any uncovered aquarium is not well suited to housing one. They do not jump out of the water when in nature, but this is because they normally would have ten feet or more of water as a buffer against going airborne. In the home aquarium they are not afforded this luxury. They can frighten very easily, with some species being more prone to this than others. I have owned a C. scottorum that would leap out of the water every time I walked around the aquarium too quickly and surprised it. The tank was completely enclosed, but the fish would sound like a pinball bouncing off of the VHO lights, and land safely back into the water. If you already have a canopy for the aquarium, you should be able to easily affix lighting egg crate to the backside to enclose the canopy. If your new fairy wrasse is small enough to fit through the holes of the egg crate, it may be best to line one side of it with a net or screen. For aquarists with an open top aquarium, I recommend that they avoid this genus entirely, as it is most likely the Cirrhilabrus will meet an untimely death when it leaps from the aquarium.

The next consideration would be tank size and decoration. All of the fairy wrasses stay small, but they are also very active fish. I recommend a minimum tank length of four feet. Naturally, the larger the aquarium, the better the fish will be. Mixing fairy wrasses can be done but is best attempted in a larger aquarium. A 55-gallon should be reserved for only one species of fairy wrasse. If the aquarium is too small, the fish may not mix well, and thus they should be separated. Aquariums in the size range of 300 gallons or more can safely mix several species of fairy wrasses. As a general rule, never mix two males of the same species. The tank should contain plenty of live rock, and provide plenty of hiding places. Wrasses want to have somewhere to get away from other tank mates. However, they will spend the vast majority of their time cruising around the tank, always in search of food.

An unknown species of Cirrhilabrus, most likely a color variant of Cirrhilabrus solorensis. Photo courtesy of Greg Rothschild.

Another important consideration would be the food you should feed the fairy wrasses. Generally, fairy wrasses will eventually learn to accept most any food offered. Even though they are zooplanktivores, I have seen them accept dried Nori, presumably learning this from the surgeonfish in the tank. In the beginning, however, they can be choosy eaters. Enriched brine can be used as a first food offered, as well as Mysis or plankton. Usually, a healthy Cirrhilabrus will consume these foods within a day or two of arriving into your aquarium. These foods can remain the staple of their diet, but they will eventually accept any of the other various frozen, freeze-dried, or flake foods on the market. In most situations, your fairy wrasse will supplement its diet by eating the fauna on live rock. Use caution when mixing this fish with other benthic predatory fish in smaller aquariums since they will compete with each other for food.

The last consideration would be tank mates. Fairy wrasses typically get along well with most fish. Only rarely will they directly attack another fish. Noted exceptions would be small Labrids added after the larger fairy wrasse is well established. They do have downfalls, however. Active fish such as surgeonfish or large angels are likely to easily startle a fairy wrasse when they dart across the aquarium. Fairy wrasses are also active feeders, so even though they shouldn't pester other passive inhabitants, it is possible they may out compete them for food. Lastly, the order of addition of these fish into the aquarium should be carefully considered. Fairy wrasses should be added before larger, or more active or aggressive fish. However, when mixing with smaller, less aggressive fish, add the fairy wrasses last. Fairy wrasses will not bother corals of any variety, nor most invertebrates. Smaller ornamental shrimp might become food if added after the wrasse is well acclimated, especially if the fish is a larger adult. My C. scottorum made quick work of several Lysmata wurdemanni that were added after the wrasse was settled into the tank. If the cleaner shrimp are present before the addition of the wrasse, then success in keeping both in the same tank is much more likely.

Compatibility chart for members of the genus Cirrhilabrus:

Fish

Will Co-Exist

May Co-Exist

Will Not Co-Exist

Notes

Angels, Dwarf

X

 
 

Should be great tank mates.

Angels, Large

 

X
 

Add the Cirrhilabrus first. Cover the aquarium!

Anthias

X
 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Assessors

X
 

 

Add the Assessor first. Should be great tank mates.

Basses

 

X
 

Some basses are very aggressive fish.

Batfish

X

 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Blennies

X
 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Boxfishes

 
X

 

Should mix well in larger aquariums; not for smaller tanks.

Butterflies

X

 
 

Add the Cirrhilabrus first. Should be great tank mates.

Cardinals

X
 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Catfish

X

 
 

Should be great tank mates.

Comet

X

 

 

Add the Comet first. Should be great tank mates.

Cowfish

X
 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Damsels

X

 

 

Add the Cirrhilabrus first. Should be great tank mates.

Dottybacks

 

X
 

Add the Cirrhilabrus first. Some dottybacks might be too aggressive.

Dragonets

 

X

 

Cirrhilabrus may compete with dragonets for food.

Drums

X
 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Eels

 

X
 

Some eels will be good tank mates. Avoid the aggressive eels.

Filefish

X
 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Frogfish

   

X

Frogfish will try to consume Cirrhilabrus.

Goatfish

 
X

 

Some Goatfish get large enough to consume Cirrhilabrus spp.

Gobies

X
 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Grammas

X

 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Groupers

 

 

X

Groupers can consume fairy wrasses.

Hamlets

X

 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Hawkfish

X

 

 

Add the Cirrhilabrus first. Should be great tank mates.

Jawfish

X

 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Lionfish

 

 
X

Lionfish may consume smaller fairy wrasses.

Parrotfish

 

X
 

Some species may squabble with each other.

Pineapple Fish

X

 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Pipefish

 
 

X

Pipefish are best suited to a species aquarium.

Puffers

 

X

 

Some Puffers might be too aggressive.

Rabbitfish

X

 
 

Should be great tank mates.

Sand Perches

X
 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Scorpionfish

   
X

Scorpionfish will consume fairy wrasses.

Seahorses

 
 

X

Cirrhilabrus will out compete the seahorse for food.

Snappers

 

X

 

May consume Cirrhilabrus.

Soapfishes

X

 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Soldierfish

X

 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Spinecheeks

X
 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Squirrelfish

X

 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Surgeonfish

X

 
 

Add the Cirrhilabrus first. Should be great tank mates.

Sweetlips

X

 

 

Should be great tank mates.

Tilefish

X

   

Should be great tank mates.

Toadfish

   

X

Toadfish may consume fairy wrasses.

Triggerfish

 

X

 

Some triggers may be too aggressive.

Waspfish

 
X

 

Ensure the Cirrhilabrus will not fit into the mouth of the waspfish.

Wrasses

 

X

 

Some species may not co-exist.

Note: While many of the fish listed are good tank mates for Cirrhilabrus spp. , you should research each fish individually before adding it to your aquarium. Some of the fish mentioned are better left in the ocean, or for advanced aquarists.

Meet the Species

I will start the introduction of species with one that once was considered the "holy grail" of fairy wrasses. In recent times its availability has increased and the fish has become more common. Regardless, Cirrhilabrus scottorum, or the Scott's wrasse, remains a beautiful fish. They are most common around The Coral Sea, Fiji, the Cook Islands, and French Polynesia and can be found ranging from 10 - 120 feet deep. Groups of three to five females congregate near the substrate, and the male swims approximately ten feet over them in the water column. During spawning, it is normal for this species to release their gametes about two feet above the substrate. Adult males will reach five inches in length, but they are known to lose their male coloration in the home aquarium. This coloration loss is hard to avoid unless an aquarium large enough to maintain a harem of the species is provided, and this usually requires about three females. Some hobbyists claim success using a mirror propped up against one side of the aquarium; however, if you wish to try this method, you should bear in mind that constant fighting with a male rival can be a source of stress and may lead to complications in the health of the fish.

A male Cirrhilabrus scottorum. If the fish begins to lose the male coloration, the first color to go would be the red patch in the center. The fish will gradually take on a blue/green overall coloration - still remaining a beautiful fish. Photo courtesy of Greg Rothschild.

The next Cirrhilabrus I'm going to discuss has just become popular and available in the aquarium trade in the last couple of years. Cirrhilabrus solorensis, or the Redheaded fairy wrasse, originates from Indonesia in slightly shallower water than C. scottorum. Generally, they cannot be found beyond 60 feet deep. The male will reach up to five inches long and will protect a small to large group of females.

Despite the darker coloration of the above Cirrhilabrus solorensis, and the lighter coloration of the C. solorensis below, both have red eyes. Photos courtesy of Greg Rothschild.

One Cirrhilabrus found in Northern Indo-Pacific waters is C. jordani. It is has a multitude of common names, including Jordan's wrasse, Hawaiian Fire wrasse, and Flame wrasse. As one of the common names indicates, it is found around the Hawaiian Islands, and also Johnston Atoll. It remains slightly smaller than the two previously mentioned wrasses, roughly four inches. Also, unlike the two previous wrasses, this one likes deeper water. It will rarely, if ever, be located shallower than 60 feet, and is most common below 90 feet. This greater depth translates into a rougher acclimation into captivity, and the bright lights employed on some of today's reef aquariums might be too bright for this fish. Males have been observed guarding a harem consisting of just a few females, yet also ranging up to 100 females (Michael, Coral Realm).

Above, a male Cirrhilabrus jordani shortly after acclimation. Below, the pair resting on the sandbed with the female in front. Photos by Greg Rothschild.

The Yellowfin fairy wrasse lacks some of brilliant colors of the three previous Cirrhilabrus, but it remains a beautiful fish in its own right. Its personality, however, is as equally outgoing as any other Cirrhilabrus. Cirrhilabrus flavidorsalis is one of the smaller fairies, not quite reaching four inches. They are imported from Indonesia and the Philippines and are found in a wide depth range varying anywhere from two feet to 120 feet deep. It prefers back coves with rich hard and soft coral growth. Rarely does it venture above the substrate by more than three feet (Michael, Coral Realm).

Cirrhilabrus flavidorsalis seen in the traditional "tail-walking" position. Cirrhilabrus will frequently place their head up high and tail down low. This is done both to defend a harem from intruding males, and to entice females into spawning. Photo courtesy of Greg Rothschild.

The Red-Margined fairy wrasse, Cirrhilabrus rubrimarginatus, is a highly sought-after, yet rarely imported, specimen. The lack of importation is likely due to the depths at which this fish spends the majority of its time. They primarily reside below 100 feet deep, and have been found in depths nearing 200 feet. The depth at which this fish is collected makes it a bad choice for today's brightly lit SPS aquariums. They are known to aggregate over open rubble and sand bottoms with small isolated patch reefs. They are among the largest Cirrhilabrus, approaching six inches in length. Only Cirrhilabrus melanomarginatus is larger (Randall, 1992). Specimens that make it to the aquarium trade are most likely collected from Fiji, though this species is also found in Tonga and Southern Japan. Males are usually shades of blue, purple, or red with a broad stroke of yellow just in front of the red on their tail. Yellow spots fade to pink as they stretch from the head back to the tail. Below is a picture of a drab (when compared to the male) female.

Cirrhilabrus rubrimarginatus in a home aquarium. Photo courtesy of Greg Rothschild.

Not terribly common in the hobby, but still beautiful, is the Yellow Streaked fairy wrasse, Cirrhilabrus luteovittatus. It can be found ranging from 25 - 125 feet deep, usually in reef lagoons in the Marshall Islands, the Philippines, and Johnston Atoll. It generally will be found in small aggregations feeding on zooplankton, and it can be kept in small aggregations in larger aquariums.

Cirrhilabrus luteovittatus in a home aquarium. Photo courtesy of Joe Burger.

The best fairy wrasse candidate for smaller aquariums is the Lubbock's fairy wrasse, Cirrhilabrus lubbocki. It barely reaches three inches in length and can be found in small aggregations with like species and other Cirrhilabrus spp., as well as Flasher Wrasses (Paracheilinus spp.). Because of its small size and likelihood to school, Lubbock's wrasses make a great schooling fish. Placing three adults into a 75-gallon aquarium can make for a nice display. In the wild, Lubbock's are distributed from Indonesia to the Philippines, and are found in 15 - 125 feet of water.

A female Cirrhilabrus pylie. Photo courtesy of Ahmet Emre.

Cirrhilabrus pylei rarely shows up in the aquarium trade, largely due to the depths at which it is reported from - roughly 250 feet. They are found around the Philipines and New Guinea. Males will be mostly red overall with a black stripe running the length of the fish just below the dorsal fin, some violet in the face, and pelvic fins that extend all the way back to the middle of the anal fin. They are among the smaller fairy wrasses, not quite reaching four inches.

Quite possibly the rarest of all fairy wrasses is the Rhomboid fairy wrasse, or Cirrhilabrus rhomboidalis. Known only from depths in excess of 125 feet in the Marshall Islands, the hobbyist who acquires this one has paid handsomely. It is another of the smaller Cirrhilabrus, not quite reaching five inches.

It is understandable why some hobbyists will shell out $200 USD to own one of these beauties. Cirrhilabrus rhomboidalis in a home aquarium. Photo courtesy of Michael G. Moye.

The "crown jewel" of fairy wrasses and most likely the wrasse people are discussing when they mention the "holy grail" of wrasses is Cirrhilabrus lineatus, or the Lined fairy wrasse. It is most commonly found deeper than 100 feet along the Great Barrier Reef on the outer reef slopes. Even though it is imported more so than Cirrhilabrus rhomboidalis, it is equally highly priced and more sought after. It is of an average size for fairy wrasses, not quite reaching five inches. As the species name may imply to some, lineatus comes from the Latin word linea, meaning line (Randall & Lubbock, 1982).

A male Cirrhilabrus lineatus displaying in a home aquarium. Photo courtesy of Nico Tao.

In Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this look into the remarkably beautiful fish in the genus Cirrhilabrus. Due to their small size, they can easily fit into the common four feet long 55 or 75-gallon aquariums. Since they exhibit fascinating colors, they can easily become the feature, or "show" fish in these smaller aquariums. However, the hobbyist needs to heed caution when mixing this fish into aquariums already containing other fish. They do not always mix well with more aggressive fish. Likewise, make sure their foraging habits will not compete with other tank mates for food. Lastly, above all else, make sure the aquarium is covered.



If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

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